VELÁZQUEZ, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y
(b. 1599, Sevilla, d. 1660, Madrid)

The Count-Duke of Olivares on Horseback

Oil on canvas, 314 x 240 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Philip IV succeeded his father, Philip III of Spain, in 1621, and, for the first 22 years of his reign, Philip's valido, or chief minister, was the Conde-Duque de Olivares, who took the spread of the Thirty Years' War as an opportunity not only for resuming hostilities against the Dutch at the end of the Twelve Years' Truce of 1609 (1621) but also for an ambitious attempt to restore Spanish hegemony in Europe, in close alliance with the imperial branch of the Habsburg dynasty.

Velázquez' most impressive equestrian portrait, painted in 1634, did not depict any member of the royal family but took as its subject Count-Duke of Olivares on Horseback. At that point in time, Olivares, by now the most powerful man in the kingdom, sometimes even more powerful than the king, could describe himself by the title of Count-Duke. He expressed his sense of his own dignity by having himself painted on horseback, an honour usually accorded only to ruling heads of state, and Velázquez constructed a Baroque equestrian portrait of extremely bold composition.

Olivares, famous for his horsemanship, is shown as a field-marshal with a plumed hat, a cuirass adorned with gold and a baton; seated on his mount, he is leaping down from a height into the depths below, and his figure fills the entire breadth of the canvas. The viewer looks diagonally upwards at the horseman, whose head is turned well to one side, so that he himself is looking down on the viewer from above in a lordly manner. The magnificent chestnut horse has its head turned the other way and is looking down into the depths of the picture, where the smoke of fires and gunpowder rises on a wide plain, and the turmoil of battle is show raging in miniature. Despite theories that have often been put forward, this picture does not necessarily show any particular battle; instead, it alludes in general to the military skill of the man who led the king's armies from triumph to triumph.

The bottom left corner of the picture shows an unfolded empty sheet of white paper. Curiously, although he usually failed to sign and date his paintings, Velázquez often added such blank pieces of paper to his pictures but wrote nothing on them.

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